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The Catholic Church is a global church. And for the 1.2 billion adherents to the faith worldwide, it is a decisive moment. The faithful are looking to a new pope to bring a time of healing — and better governance — to a church tarnished by scandal and deeply divided.

Mother Tekla: The most powerful woman in Rome

Mother Tekla Famiglietti, head of the Bridgettine Order, runs a small empire of hotels, restaurants, and guesthouses around the world. She has left a distinctive imprint at the Vatican and on the Catholic Church.

In an era when Western religious orders are shrinking, the Bridgettines have 800 members and a remarkable growth rate of 4 percent, adding 30 women a year. Backed by politically conservative donors, the order also generates revenue through a far-flung network of religious homes that double as hotels, or high-end guest houses, in Europe, Israel, the Philippines, and in sixteen places in India. The paid lodgings are part of the Bridgettine charism — or vision — of “Christian hospitality.”

It is also a form of religious capitalism.

A Bridgettine estate in Darien, Connecticut, charges $110 a night, which includes meals, and a $45 day rate for lunch and dinner. The facility has low labor overhead with nuns vowed to poverty.

“Nestled within hidden inlets of the Long Island Sound,” the estate’s website states, “the Vikingsborg Guest House offers a tranquil 10-acre manse ideal for meditative pleasure. Members of all faiths are welcome for private retreats, rest or study.”

The Darien house pays taxes. The one in Rome is tax-exempt.

St. Bridget’s House at Piazza Farese charges 140 euro per night, which includes breakfast, access to chapel, a distinct religious milieu, and optional meals in a dining room. Nuns in wimples and traditional habits serve tables and work in kitchens and front desks, reducing labor costs. Bridgettine houses in other countries are run the same way, including the one in Havana. 

Mother Tekla met Fidel Castro in 2000 at the inauguration of President Vincente Fox in Mexico City. This was two years after John Paul’s historic trip to Cuba, which began a thaw in state-church tensions.

Tekla Famiglietti greets Cuban President Fidel Castro March 8, 2003 in Havana, Cuba. 
(Getty Images-Pool/Getty Images)

Castro allowed her to open a small convent. Tekla’s career hit its zenith in 2003 when she commemorated the fifth anniversary of the papal trip with a ceremony for another, larger Bridgettine house in the colonial section of Havana.

Castro spoke at the event, which was televised on state broadcast.

“The Holy See regretted Castro’s turning the opening ceremony into a propaganda opportunity, but is willing to grit its teeth,” said a US State Department intelligence cable made public through Wikileaks.

The Vatican hoped the event would spark “greater church access to the Cuban people,” according to the cable. But the Havana Cardinal-Archbishop, Jaime Ortega — who had recently issued a pastoral letter critical of the regime on human rights — boycotted the ceremony, feeling snubbed by the Vatican planning.

Later, Tekla told officials of the US Embassy to the Holy See (under Ambassador Francis Rooney, who succeeded Nicholson) that she had asked Ortega for a convent site, but the cardinal could only offer one some distance out on a country road. She asked Castro; he pledged a building in Old Havana. The cable states:

Mother Tekla herself told us that no special honors were accorded Castro at the opening ceremony, and that she invited him to the inauguration out of “charity” and Christian courtesy...The renovation costs were covered by donations solicited by Tekla’s order, and the Vatican [embassy in Havana] assisted with importing building materials and fittings usually hard to come by in Cuba.

The cable summarizes the view of Msgr. Giorgio Lingua, an official in the Vatican foreign affairs ministry at the time:

"Lingua agreed that Cardinal Ortega and the Cuban clergy had a legitimate beef with how Mother Tekla had organized the construction and inauguration of her convent (i.e. via direct communication with Castro and the Pope rather than via the Cuban bishops). He admitted that the Holy See had not managed the event well, noting that Mother Tekla 'is not controllable...'”

At a 2006 meeting with US officials in Rome, reported in another cable now on Google, the abbess argued for lifting the Cuban embargo before Castro died. “Mother Tekla said she had been to Fidel’s house many times” but on a recent trip Castro was “too weak and ill” to meet.

The Bridgettines eventually established four houses in Cuba.

Tekla’s move into Cuba capitalized on Castro’s ties with John Paul and his tolerance of the church’s social assistance to people on the edges of an economy, no longer under girded by the former Soviet Union. Moreover, Cuba’s burgeoning tourist economy needed hotels.